New Study Suggests Lifestyle Shapes Our Ability to Name Odors

In the Malay Peninsula, researchers compared the vocabulary of the Semaq Beri hunter-gathering population and the Semelai, who are horticulturalists

This woman won't do justice to the smell of this peach when she describes it to a friend later. istock/Steve Debenport

“Sweet" or, perhaps, “yummy” are words you might use to describe the lovely aroma of a cake wafting through your house. But these are terms that rely on another sense. That's not so surprising. English speakers lack a particularly robust vocabulary for identifying and describing scents. Looking for a language with a heightened ability to describe the exact odor coming from the cake? A new study points to those spoken by hunter-gatherers.

As Andy Coghlan reports for the New Scientist, two researchers— Asifa Majid of Radboud University in the Netherlands and Nicole Kruspe of Sweden’s Lund University—set off to the Malay Peninsula to study two ethnic populations: the Semaq Beri hunter-gatherer population, and the Semelai, many of whom subsist by farming rice. Majid and Radboud wanted to see if these peoples, who speak related languages but lead very different existences, might shed light on the ways that lifestyle shapes our ability to name odors.

Majid and Radboud asked 20 Semaq Beri and 21 Semelai individuals to identify 80 colors and 16 smells—including banana, petrol, fish and leather. To reflect the consistency of the responses, the researchers created a “codability score.” If all members of a group gave a different description of a scent or color, the score would be zero; if they all gave the same response, the score would be one.

The results of the study, published recently in Current Biology, revealed that Semelai farmers’ average codability score for scents was only 0.06. But the Semelai were much more consistent when it came to naming colors, earning a score of 0.46. The Semaq Beri hunter-gatherers scored 0.3 in the color portion of the experiment, but far outpaced the Semelai when it came to naming scents, racking up a score of 0.26.

This discrepancy​ is not entirely surprising. As Angus Chen of NPR reports, other hunter-gatherer groups of the Malay Peninsula have been shown to be similarly good at describing scents, relying on a roster of abstract terms that can be applied to different odors. The Jahai group, for example, uses the word Cηεs to describe “the seemingly dissimilar smell of petrol, smoke, bat poop, root of wild ginger and wood of wild mango,” Chen writes.

English-speakers have plenty of abstract words for colors (“pink,” for example, can describe many different things), but we do not have many words to objectively describe smells. “The closest word we have is musty," Majid tells Chen. "Musty picks out a quality of smell that we associate with a room not opened in a long time or books or different scenarios.”

The Semelai farmers’ similar struggle to name scents suggests that our lexicon for odors is connected to our way of life. As hunter-gatherers, the Semaq Beri move through dense forests and rely on their sense of smell to detect food and predators at night. For the Semelai, who spend less time amid untamed foliage, describing smells is not as important. It is also possible, the researchers note, that the hunter-gatherers’ way of life has made them better smellers: either because they have retained certain genes that other humans have lost, or because they boast a unique “neuroanatomical connectivity.” And this in turn has helped them develop a stellar olfactory vocabulary.

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